“I don’t think I need to show my variations. It’s going well even without that.”
Axar Patel couldn’t hold back his smile when asked about the “mystery ball” he’s developed. He had after all picked figures of 6/38 on the first day in Ahmedabad by doing exactly what everybody expects him to do: land the ball in the same area over and over again and let the pitch do its thing.
It’s a skill that Axar has honed over the years, bowling with the red and white ball and making seamless transitions between the two. In fact, he was at it exactly a year ago, with three first-class appearances inside a month of returning from New Zealand with the India A side. Perfecting the “mystery ball” soon gave way to bowling long spells in the nets under the watchful eyes of Sairaj Bahutule, the head coach of his state side Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy.
In that sense, it was another colour ticked for Axar. With the pink ball that you don’t always expect to look like a threat in a spinner’s hand, the left-arm spinner found enough skid off the Motera surface for his arm-balls, and bowled full enough to ensure that the England batsmen committed on the front foot to them. That the pitch wasn’t consistent with the turn only made it that more difficult.
“When the ball skids, you want to bowl wicket to wicket. Because when the batsmen plays a little back to the fuller balls, there’s a good chance that he will be lbw or bowled,” Axar explained. “I and Ashwin were discussing that there’s no consistent spin, only the odd ball was turning, so we wanted to bowl wicket to wicket.”
Five of Axar’s six wickets on the day were bowled or lbw. He struck with his first ball of the match, an arm ball to Jonny Bairstow and followed it up with the wickets of Zak Crawley, Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad and Ben Foakes.
Even with the pitch playing a few tricks, there was a method to what Axar was doing. His over to Crawley, which dismissed England’s best batsman on the day who made over 47 percent of the runs, makes a case in point. The first ball of this 24th over was a slider on the stumps. Crawley played back to it but was able to keep it out. The second one was another slider but wide of off-stump. Crawley left it mistaking it for the away-spinning stock ball and nearly lost his off-stump.
Axar bowled the third ball slower. Murali Kartik showed on air how he’s able to do it by snapping his wrist away at the time of delivery and holding the ball just a little bit longer so that it comes out “spinning like a saucer” to quote the former left-arm spinner turned commentator. This one from Axar turned, bounced and beat the bat. But it wasn’t the first time Crawley had been beaten by the turn; he’d played for the arm-ball on most occasions. This is when Axar bowled the perfect ball, another slider that drew Crawley forward and then skid past his bat. Struck in front with nowhere to go. Not even a review.
“I came on to bowl earlier than usual because the faster bowlers were having troubles with the footholes and hence weren’t able to bowl the lengths they would have liked. Even England faced the same issue later. The new pink ball, which is very shiny, was skidding on this wicket. It wasn’t doing that on the Chennai wicket. That’s why I got a lot of lbws here. If you give the ball less time in the air bowl around 85-90, then the ball skids,” he explained.
“I used to bowl pace earlier in my career, but I had a knee issue and switched to spin. It could be why my bowling style is quick and why I bowl a quicker arm-ball.”
As the lacquer on the pink SG ball came off, Axar found markedly less skid off the surface. That’s when he started bowling the undercutter, going round-arm and trying to spin the ball on a horizontal axis so that it lands on the leather and slides straight on. In fact, 65 out of Axar’s 147 wickets in first-class cricket have come through bowled and lbws.
“I usually bowl a lot of undercutters but since it was skidding a lot, I was bowling quick. When the ball got older, it wasn’t skidding much so I was trying to undercut more.”
At the other end, Axar had the control of Ravichandran Ashwin who would bowl his first loose delivery, a long hop, in only his 10th over. Both spinners combined to bowl 12 maidens out of a total of 37.4 overs and that it came despite very aggressive fields from India captain Virat Kohli was a testament to just how good the bowling was.
“I think because of so much T20 and IPL cricket, batsmen don’t have the patience to play a lot of dot balls and get through a string of maidens,” Axar said. “They try and play an attacking stroke after a while and that’s why the more dots you bowl, the more pressure you put on the batsman. That’s why bowling tight and quick is more successful these days.”
Bahutule reminisces about Axar doing the same with a split spinning finger last year, when he bowled 55.4 overs across two innings in the Ranji Trophy semifinal against Saurashtra. He didn’t need to bowl as many in Ahmedabad on Wednesday (February 24) nor worry too much about using his variations. The secret to success at the new Motera was if anything, avoiding those variations, which he did with great success.